As flu season and the start of another COVID-19 school year approach, many parents have been grappling with questions about how to protect the health of their children — including concerns about the safety of vaccines.
Experts from Stony Brook Medicine discussed the science behind vaccinations for children in a virtual panel on Aug. 17, dispelling myths and answering questions commonly asked of pediatricians. The panel included pediatricians Dr. Jill Cioffi and Dr. Lauren Ng, who posed parent concerns to Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.
The trio emphasized that vaccines are meant to prevent life-threatening illnesses, especially among children, who often have more vulnerable immune systems. The COVID-19 vaccine, which is currently in clinical trials for children under 12, was a chief focus of the conversation.
Below is a sample of some of the questions discussed during the forum.
Q: Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?
Dr. Nachman pointed out that the vaccine has been distributed to more than 100 million adults worldwide, which “if that means anything to you, that means that in fact, it is safe and it is effective.” She said Stony Brook University Hospital is seeing more and more adults hospitalized with COVID-19 daily, “pretty much 100%” of whom are unvaccinated.
Children need to be vaccinated for COVID-19 too, she said. With the rise of the Delta variant, more children have been falling ill with COVID-19.
“If you’ve been looking at the news from Florida, or Mississippi, or Texas, or even Kentucky, they’re all talking about pediatric cases or children getting COVID not only getting the infection but getting sick with it,” she said. “And right now, in Texas, there are no pediatric ICU beds for anyone at this time. They’re all filled, because there are too many children who have COVID that are being admitted not only to the hospital, but to our pediatric ICUs.”
Dr. Nachman said both Moderna and Pfizer are conducting clinical trials on children as young as six months, to test dosage and side effects. Stony Brook University recently completed Pfizer vaccinations for children between six months and 12 years of age, she said, and is waiting for a two-month safety look before submitting their data to Pfizer. The timeline for Moderna trials at Stony Brook is just a little behind.
Q: Does the vaccine impact fertility?
The short answer: no, it does not.
“Let’s break that out for a minute,” Dr. Nachman said. “Number one, vaccines don’t cross the placenta. Why is that? Because the placenta is not made by the mommy. It’s made by the baby. And it’s made to be a barrier.”
That means the vaccination does not impact the unborn child, either positively or negatively. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has encouraged pregnant women to get their COVID-19 vaccines, she said.
“Over the past few months, we’ve had too many pregnant women admitted to our hospital and to our adult ICUs with COVID,” she said. “Knowing that it does not cross the placenta, it’s not going to affect the baby, would be important information if you’re pregnant.”
The COVID-19 vaccine also “absolutely does not” affect the ovaries or uterus. “It will not in any way harm your fertility.” However, the COVID-19 infection can affect fertility in adult males, she said. Some studies have demonstrated significant decreases in sperm count after infection.
Q: Why hasn’t the vaccine been officially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?
“In order to get full approval from the FDA, the FDA is required to go to every single plant that you’re making any part of the vaccine, be it the vials, the stoppers, where you’re printing up the labels, as well as any part of the manufacturing process of the vaccine,” Dr. Nachman said. “As you can imagine, that takes time.”
The FDA also requires “a huge amount of other information” that’s not traditionally associated with an emergency use authorization. “Those are longer time points for safety and efficacy,” she said. “It would been impossible to have full FDA approval at the time of the EUA approval because it wasn’t six months after those vaccines were distributed.”
Dr. Nachman said the first vaccine distributions have only recently passed the six-month mark. She added that because so many people wanted vaccines and COVID-19 was so prevalent in communities, the companies had enough data to demonstrate efficacy.
“They didn’t have to wait, like the pneumonia vaccine, for enough people over enough time to get pneumonia. It just happened so quickly,” she said. “So that’s why they went the EUA route, because they realized the only way to save lives is to get the vaccine out.”
Q: Does the COVID-19 vaccine cause pericarditis or myocarditis?
Pericarditis and myocarditis involve inflammation of the heart. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been more than 1,000 reported cases of the two conditions after Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations in the U.S. since April 2021. The CDC notes that these cases are rare and seem to occur particularly in young adults and adolescents.
Dr. Nachman called the reactions an “immune response to the vaccine.”
“It tells us that your body has made a great immune response and it’s made some kind of extra antibodies and that’s why we’re seeing some of the heart inflammation,” she said. Most cases were seen in doctors’ offices or emergency rooms, treated with Advil and sent home.
“Amongst those that were hospitalized in the beginning, we actually used different medications but soon learned that in fact, Advil was the right medication for most of those. And all of those have also now been discharged,” Dr. Nachman added.
Although the conditions could be a concern, they’re both easily identified and treated. Dr. Nachman said the odds of reacting in that way is about 17 per million doses.
“As you know and I know, on Long Island every one of those super spreader events we’ve had over the year was associated with young adults and teenagers,” she said. “They’re hanging out together, they’re not wearing masks, and therefore they’re spreading COVID. And with the Delta strain, they’re spreading even more COVID.”
Q: If my child has already had COVID, should they still be vaccinated?
Yes, they should.
A study conducted in Kentucky found that unvaccinated individuals who had COVID-19 in the past are two times more likely to contract the illness than individuals who have been vaccinated and never had COVID, according to Dr. Nachman.
“So thinking having illness in the past is going to protect you it’s actually not,” she said.